Anil Sharma’s “Tahalka” is one of Bollywood’s watershed cinematic achievements, a spy thriller with a strong political subtext that mixes suspense, betrayal, cross-dressing, overacting, phallic symbolism, special effects and pure sensationalism in such an effective way that years later when Tarun Tejpal was looking for a name for a guerrilla newspaper that would ambush the establishment, he could do no better than to pay homage to this genre-bender by naming his rag “Tehelka”.
The movie starts off unlike most Bollywood fare. No frivolousness, no lady dancing in rain in towel ” Tahalka” comes straight to the point. As shots of the Himalayas are shown, a voice over informs us of a land called Dongri-la (a subtle play of words on Shangri-La, James Hilton’s fictional utopia in the Lost Horizon). However this Dongri-La is no idyllic kingdom cause it is controlled by the evil dictator –Dong [Amrish Puri].
While many experts have analyzed the phallic symbolism inherent in the name “Dong” ( Dong is frequently shown running his fingers rapidly on the strings of a sitar with lusty expressions while semi-clad women dance about him), most film critics agree that the more important subtext here is definitely political. That is Dong is nothing but a surrogate for one-time Chinese supremo “Deng” Xaoping.
Indeed their hypothesis is supported by the voice-over that says, in a passage that is both politically charged and subtly erotic:
Yeh khoobsoorat wadi, yeh baraf se dhaake pahaar, sarhad hain us mulk ki jisse duniyawaale Hindustan ke naam se jaante hain. Aur inke us paar se shuru hoti hain un mulkon ki sahradein jinki hawas ki haad apne sarhadon se nikal kar hindustan ke hadon mein ghusne ki koshish main rahee hai.
Anyone with even an iota of political knowledge, will immediately cotton on to the fact that the country being referred to is China.This is confirmed by the fact that Dong and his cohorts have slit eyes, long “chotis” like the Japanese, elongated moustaches and most importantly talk to each other in Mandarin. Which in this movie is just one line: ” Bum chik bum bum”.
If there is any doubt as to whether Dongri-La is anything but China is quickly dispelled when Dong sings the Chinese Communist terror song “Shom Shom Shom Shomo Shashaaaa” (last heard being sung by the Red Army as the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square) just before executing his enemies.
It is here that the movie’s uniqueness lies. While most Bollywood products in recent years have concentrated on Pakistan-bashing, “Tahalka” trains its guns on the real national enemy.
Namely Dong and his Himalayan nation the People’s Republic of Dongri-La.
Coming back to the story. Dong rules China sorry Dongri-La with an iron fist —so authoritarian is he that if anyone is sixty seconds late for any appointment he is shot. His days are spent playing the sitar, plotting to destroy the great nation of India and capturing girls from Hindustan—the voluptuous ones he keeps in his gulaag under mind control where “they do anything he asks them to”. And what does he do to the “other” ones, the ones that do not catch his fancy?
I shall let Dong speak.
In ladkiyon ko bechkar hum dalali bhi naheen kar saakte hain. Inki aankhein, kidneys aur dil nikaalke bazaar mein bech do.
And that’s not all. Just like Saddam Hussein, Dong has an army of clones with whose help he escapes assasination attempts and even personally enters India to kill an Indian general (a waiting-to-die Parikshit Sahani) by shooting him during “National Day” from a gun that is being paraded in front of him, an obvious in-reference to the way Egypt’s Anwar Sadat was killed. And finally, after each act of evil he repeats two lines—which experts agree is the simplest statement of the Marxist philosophy ever conceived.
Uparwala wrong ho sakta hain,
Par Dong kabhi wrong naheen hotaaaaaaaaaaaa……..
In other words: God does not exist. The head of the Communist state is infallible.
Sick and tired of Dong’s attempts to destabilize India, Major Krishna Rao (who has the most awesome lines like “Daanver Karn ke najaayaz aulaad” and “Badalne waale hum cheez naheen, aare hum mard hain, koi kameez naheen” decides to assemble a crack team of India’s best commandos (Naseeruddin Shah, Javed Jaffrey, Aditya Pancholi and Ekta [famous for her underwear scene in "Awaal Number"]). Their mission: to get into Dongri La, rescue a file that contains a list of all of Dong’s plants in India, rescue Krishna Rao’s daughter who has been captured for mind control and most importantly drive a stake through Dong’s red heart.
India’s best commandos under-cover and in the “cross”-fire
But Major Krishna Rao faces hindrances at each step. Superior officer Brigadier Kapoor (Shammi Kapoor) is unwilling to authorize an operation that is against all international law. He expresses his opposition often silently with the most subtle of expressions.
But the biggest impediment in the path to mission success is that no matter how good the commandos are, noone can break through the Dong’s defense. Other than of course ex-major Dharam Singh (played by who else Dharam Paaji). But he has been court martialed and dismissed because of his over-patriotism. Disgraced and despondent, this “ronin” lives his life in Bangkok in a go-go bar where he sings and dances to the 90s hit (reportedly the favorite song of a lady politician of Uttar Pradesh)
Put on the ghunghroo on my feet and watch my deramaaa (as rhymes with hungama)
Main tera…pee jayoongaaaa
Convinced that this mission will enable him to bring back his lost honor, Dharam Singh joins the merry gang of men as they troop through the rough terrain of Himalayas with a “Ho ho” song on their lips, only stopping for small breaks in which Ektaa slips into comfortable wear, gets wet under a waterfall and dances with Aditya Pancholi.
Has the pace of the narrative made you breathless already? Wait. Things are just beginning. As the gang of patriots make their way through Dongri-La, they come face to face with Dong’s minions —–insect man and Captain Synthia. And towering above all of them is a sinister presence, a double-agent who imperils the mission at every step.
Insects in my veins…….Oooh Aaaahhhh
Captain Synthia: the wife of the Abominable Yeti is a Dongri-La agent
As the plot stumbles to a shattering crescendo, revealing layer and layer of twists and red-herrings, the audience sits at the edge of the seat, trying to guess the identity of the “double agent” –a minion of evil who is determined to destroy India at all costs.
Could the “mole” be the leader of the local Dongri-La resistance, King Cow (Prem Chopra) ? If he is so innocent, why does he wear small cow-bell like thingies on his hat?
Could the traitor be Major Krishna Rao’s leg ?Why does the leg keep falling off ? Does it have an agenda of its own? And why does Krishna Rao deliver dialogs and shayris while hopping on one leg?
Could it be Naseeruddin Shah? Why does he dress up as a Mongoloid and do suhagraat with local lass, Captain Jello ke behen Julie ( Pallavi Joshi) when the mission is at a climax? More importantly, by deciding to act in this flick Naseer has sold his soul. Then why not his country?
Could Dong’s secret agent be.. ? Sorry wrong movie.
Can someone tell me what the hell is that above? And why oh why does Dharam sporadically shout out “Haramzaade”, “Pagal kutta”, Haddi pasli ek kar doonga” , often to noone in particular?
Telling you any more about the vicissitudes of the plot would be unfair but I can assure you that you will never see the end coming. And if somehow you are able to guess the identity of the traitors, what you will never be able to anticipate is a song “Tere Dil Mein Mere Dil Hain, Eeeaa Eaaaa Ooo” lifted from “Old McDonald Had a Farm”.
A last word. Do please wait till the very end of the movie –if not for the surprise ending but for Dharamendra’s last line where he provides, in the way only he can, a word of advice to all Hindi movie villains through history who have suffered from a strange case of performance anxiety just before the “deed”:
If you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk
Actually I am wrong. That was not the last line. The last line is Dharamendra saying:
At that moment I felt as if the director, through the voice of Dharamendra, was speaking directly to me in the process doing that thing great movies do—connect with you emotionally, making you an intrinsic part of its madness.